3 Simple Steps to Get and Learn from Critical Feedback

A few days ago, I read an article from Harvard Business Review on how to get better at receiving feedback. I found the article really valuable in terms of how not to get “feedsmacked;” in other words, how to not be totally thrown off guard when you get harsh feedback and react in ways that you’ll later regret. The article shared lots of tangible ideas about how to recover in the face of unexpected and challenging criticism.

As I reflected on the article, I thought about how afraid we can be of feedback, whether we know it’s coming or not. What I want to offer today is a counter to that fear, a new perspective on the dreaded “can I give you some feedback?” question.

While unexpected and unrequested feedback will always be a part of our lives, I’ve found that one of the best counters is not just responding differently and less reactively to feedback, but actually going out and soliciting it. Yes, this means not just waiting for an annual performance review or for that difficult conversation with your partner, but actually getting out ahead of the feedback, and doing it with a regular, intentional cadence.

For some, this notion of seeking out feedback, as in wanting to hear where you can improve, can be terrifying. Why would you actively want to find out where you’re falling short? Isn’t it just an unnecessary kick to the gut?

I would argue the exact opposite: asking for and receiving feedback is life-giving. It’s how we grow, innovate, and thrive. Without it, we question what others think, live in fear of what others might be thinking, and create all types of simple stories of how others experience us.

And like most things, hearing feedback is a muscle: as we receive more of it, we become better equipped - more in shape - to take on unexpected, unsolicited feedback. We actually hear it better. We can understand what’s being said, ask about what’s not being said, and sort through what’s most useful to us. As you seek out feedback, you’ll gain in self-awareness, increase your capacity to manage the critical feedback (decreasing the feedsmacking experience), and dare I say, find more fulfillment in life.

So, how do you do it? How you start soliciting more critical feedback? Here are three simple steps to get started:

  • Request ratings. When we ask others for feedback on how we’re doing, the feedback giver is usually not skilled enough to give meaningful feedback. They are either are caught off guard and say everything is going well, nit pick a small incident that doesn’t give the requester much valuable information, or offer something unspecific (e.g. “You could have more executive presence.”). It’s much easier for people to give meaningful feedback right after they’ve experienced you and with a direct and specific question. For example, after a big presentation, try asking a few colleagues, “On a scale of 1-10, what did you think of my presentation?”

  • Identify one thing. If the feedback giver rates you at anything less than a 10, ask, “What’s one thing I can do better, to bring me closer to a 10?” It’s important to keep your feedback request limited as you don’t want to overwhelm the other person, and quite frankly, you don’t want to overwhelm yourself!

  • Find what’s true. We tend to fall in one of two directions: We either take feedback as the word of God or we become defensive and look for how it is wrong. Feedback is another person’s experience of you. It’s not right or wrong, it’s just information. Instead of blindly accepting it or jumping to your own defense; take a deep breath, thank the other person, and reflect on the question: How is it true?

There’s no question that asking for and receiving feedback can be an incredibly vulnerable and challenging task. My hope is that with these three simple steps, you can begin removing some of the anxiety around feedback and finding joy in gathering new information that will serve your growth and development.